With its terrible brutality and its death toll of nearly 60,000 lives in four years, the current Mexican drug war recalls two other periods of violence across the past two centuries of Mexican history: the War of Independence of 1810–1821 (and its long aftermath in the nineteenth century) and the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth, with their greater death tolls but equivalent ferocity. Politically motivated but expanding into a broader chaos, both of these previous outbreaks were stemmed by authoritarian governments, the first by the dictator Porfirio Díaz in the late nineteenth century, the second by the formation of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) in the 1930s, which created a powerful presidency, with a new candidate elevated every six years. It was a system that lasted till the end of the twentieth century. Such a solution from on high, from absolute authority, is no longer possible in the current, democratic Mexico.
The murder rate is statistically higher in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Brazil, but in Mexico we are enduring a continual escalation of nearly unbelievable cruelty, with murder and torture a constant marked by decapitations, mutilations, kidnappings for profit, and mass executions. In the most afflicted areas, the criminal groups threaten to supplant local power with their displays of terror and volleys of bullets. In the era of YouTube and instant Internet news, it is a return to the past.
But it is not a sudden explosion, rather the result of a storm that has been gathering for decades, unforeseen and overwhelming. El Narco, by the English journalist Ioan Grillo, deals with the history and culture of this highly remunerative savagery. Its title is the term for the drug trade as well as for its individual agents, and Grillo presents a grim story and perceptive analyses clearly, with intelligent restraint, great courage, and a wealth of detail.
The roots of the drug trade go back to the end of the nineteenth century, in the west coast state of Sinaloa, over five hundred miles north of Mexico City. In what Grillo calls the Mexican Sicily, Chinese laborers, who had arrived to construct the new railroads, planted small fields of opium poppies in the fertile hills. By the 1930s local farmers had taken over these farms, persecuting, expelling, and often killing the Chinese.
Many of the major capos of El Narco were born in the 1950s in the hills of Sinaloa, like Joaquín “El Chapo” (“Shorty”) Guzmán, the son of a small grower of opium poppies and marijuana, who has earned a certain special fame as the only criminal on Forbes’ Billionaire List. By then, the cultivation of opium poppies had become a local tradition, practiced for generations and colloquially referred to as “the paste” (la goma). A Sinaloan baseball team boasted the name Los Gomeros.
A decisive moment came when, in 1976 and with American aid, the Mexican …